Abraham replied, “They have Moses and the Prophets; let them listen to them.”
“No, Father Abraham,” he said, “but if someone from the dead goes to them, they will repent.”
He said to him, “If they will not listen to Moses and the Prophets, they will not be convinced even if someone comes back from the dead.” (Luke 16:29-31)
In the last few years, there has been a flurry of books written detailing experiences of people who have reportedly died and then come back. Many describe the wonders of ‘heaven’ and are lauded as evidence that, to use the title of one such book, ‘heaven is for real.’
Yet, in light of Jesus’ words in Luke 16, I wonder if these reports are not ultimately misguided. Setting aside any speculation about whether any of these people truly saw heaven, I believe there are still serious concerns with placing trust in near-death visions. The Parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus highlights at least one.
It is dangerous to look for more of heaven than what Scripture reveals.
In the parable, the rich man dies and goes to Hades, where he is tormented and in agony. After first appealing for mercy for himself (and being rejected), he asks Abraham to send Lazarus to warn his siblings, so that they would repent. The response Jesus places in the mouth of Abraham is telling: “They have Moses and the Prophets; let them listen to them.”
Instead of being amazed at the resurrection of Lazarus and his tale of being at Abraham’s side, Jesus invites his hearers to take seriously the words of Scripture. They do not need someone sent from the dead to know that heaven and hell exist. They have the very words of God that testify to this fact. They also do not need someone to come back from the dead to tell them there are consequences for neglecting poor Lazarus, for they have Moses and the Prophets.
Yet we always seem to want more. The Bible’s pictures of heaven are true, but vague. They are filled with images of animals, gemstones, and cities. It can be so confusing. We want to know what it is really like, from someone who has been there. When Jesus responds to our questions by pointing us back to God’s Word, we are tempted to answer like the rich man, ‘No, but if we see someone back from the dead, then we will know it is real.’
But this kind of speculation can be dangerous. “The secret things belong to the Lord our God, but the things revealed belong to us and to our children forever, that we may follow all the words of this law” (Dt 29:29). Some things we are not meant to know this side of heaven, even if we desperately want to. God’s work in us includes working through our experience, but we place our trust in God and what he has revealed.
What picture of heaven and hell do you see in Scripture?
Where are you tempted to go beyond what God has revealed in Scripture?
How do you deal with this temptation?